Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Continues Investigation of BioWatch and Surveillance of Bioterrorism

June 18, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), today held a hearing examining concerns over the BioWatch program and the surveillance of bioterrorism. This hearing continues an ongoing committee investigation opened last summer on BioWatch, which aims to detect and provide warning about potential biological attacks but has been plagued by false alarms and other failures. As a result of these setbacks, some local and state officials where BioWatch systems have been deployed have expressed a lack of confidence in the technology and have admitted they are hesitant to rely on the program’s detection abilities. Similarly, members have raised concerns that BioWatch is not adequately fulfilling its role of protecting the public while costing taxpayers approximately $1 billion to date. The committee today also released a staff report on the investigation.

"For nine years BioWatch has sought to develop and deploy a more advanced type of technology that would include air sampling and analysis of the samples in the same device, a so-called ‘lab-in-a-box,’” said Chairman Murphy. “Unfortunately, after much hype, versions of ‘lab-in-a-box’ technology have failed.”

Murphy continued, “We cannot afford another DHS boondoggle. This costly approach is unbalanced and misdirected. It makes no sense to expand outdoor monitoring for a less likely large-scale attack, while not addressing the declining number of public health responders who are needed in any kind of attack. If public health authorities lack the capability to respond, BioWatch will not produce a benefit. After ten years of operation, we still don’t know if the current BioWatch technology can detect an aerosolized bioterrorism agent in a real-world environment. DHS expects to have this data this fall. We don’t know if past management problems have been corrected. Bipartisan committee staff asked DHS to produce documents from an internal DHS investigation of a DHS official’s conduct related to BioWatch, but DHS has not done so.”

Last September, Congress cut approximately $40 million that was originally earmarked for the vast expansion of BioWatch’s new testing technology called BioWatch Generation 3. Congress also required the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to certify that the science of Generation 3 is proven before moving forward with procurement. This includes a thorough review of currently operational BioWatch sensors, and analysis of whether Generation 3, or perhaps other alternatives would better protect the American people from a biological attack.

Members heard testimony from Michael Walter, Ph.D., BioWatch Program Manager at the Department of Homeland Security, and Toby L. Merlin, M.D., Director of the Division of Preparedness & Emerging Infections in the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the CDC, who both explained their roles in the program, and where it stands with Generation 3 procurement on hold.

Walter explained that due to recommendations from the Government Accountability Office, DHS is looking at alternatives to its original Generation 3 plan. He said, “The Department is currently conducting an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA), consistent with recommendations by the Government Accountability Office. The AoA will assess several possible alternative strategies based on technical feasibility, manageable risk and cost. Based on the results of the AoA, DHS will determine the most appropriate course of action.”

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

A June 18, 2013, supplemental Majority Memorandum that details the committee’s investigation into BioWatch can be accessed here.

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